Education in Exile

Berlin Offers Hungarian University 'Asylum'

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Personal enmity between the Hungarian prime minister and billionaire investor George Soros could force an elite private university to close its doors in Hungary, or force a move to another country.

  • Facts


    • When Mr. Soros founded the Central European University, or CEU, in 1991, his goal was to pass on liberal ideas to young academics.
    • Under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Hungary has become increasingly authoritarian, despite remaining nominally democratic and a member of the European Union.
    • A new higher education law could force the CEU to shut down, because it stipulates that only foreign universities with operations in their country of origin may work in Hungary.
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Hungary CEU Protest
Demonstrators face policemen in Budapest, Hungary, as they protest the amendment of the higher education law. Source: Zoltan Balogh/MTI via AP

In the end, when Hungarian President János Ader signed the country’s questionable new higher education law on Monday, it was really nothing but a formality. A day after massive protests in the streets of the Hungarian capital, Budapest, he told critics that the provisions of the new law do not restrict the freedom of research and teaching, as enshrined in the Hungarian constitution. That’s Mr. Ader’s view anyway and he is an expert on how parliamentary legislation is created here.

Statements like this are just another part of a farce, according to opponents of the new higher education law. The new provisions threaten to put an end to the renowned Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, which is funded by investor George Soros. The new law stipulates that the only foreign universities that can operate in Hungary are those who also teach in their countries of origin. This is not the case with the CEU, a private university.

Late last week, the president of the Free University of Berlin, Peter-André Alt, told Berlin-based daily Tagesspeigel that he had spoken with the CEU’s president, Michael Ignatieff, on the eve of the law’s signing.

“We wanted to sound out how we could best support the university,” Mr. Alt said.

“I see it as an act of political vandalism, the personal rancor of Viktor Orbán, who, for some strange reason, is waging a personal campaign against George Soros.”

Anton Pelink, professor of political science, CEU Budapest

If the CEU was not able to continue teaching in Budapest, then there must be alternatives offered, the Berlin educator said. The 1,600 students and 300 staff could possibly be accommodated in empty buildings formerly used by the German ministry of health, along one of the German capital’s major thoroughfares, Unter Den Linden.

“The Free University, with its liberal traditions, lends itself to this,” Mr. Alt noted.

The publisher of the German newspaper, Sebastien Turner, followed Mr. Alt’s interview on Sunday with an editorial saying that Berlin should provide “asylum” for the CEU, arguing that the German city had the funds and the buildings and that teaching staff should show “solidarity” with the Hungarian institute.

Other Europeans have also come forward to propose alternatives. Vienna has already offered itself as an alternative location. According to reports by Austrian news agencies, Austria’s Chancellor Christian Kern, a Social Democrat, and Mr. Soros have discussed the matter. Prague in the Czech Republic and the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, have made similar offers.

The CEU, in downtown Budapest, was founded by George Soros in 1991, and has long been a thorn in the side of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. “I see it as an act of political vandalism, the personal rancor of Viktor Orbán, who, for some strange reason, is waging a personal campaign against George Soros,” said Anton Pelinka, a well-known political science professor who works at the CEU.

Last Sunday, 70,000 people protested against the impending shutdown of the university in one of the largest protest marches in “Orbánistan,” as critics ironically refer to the country. But the protesters’ call for “a free country, a free university” fell on deaf ears.

Mr. Orbán, the head of the conservative Fidesz Party, has declared Mr. Soros, a Jew who emigrated from Hungary, an opponent.

Mr. Soros, a multi-billionaire, financial manager and philanthropist, represents a liberalism that Mr. Orbán, a staunch nationalist rejects. In founding the CEU shortly after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Mr. Soros wanted to pass on liberal ideas to young academics.

But the country is a completely different place today. Under Mr. Orbán, Hungary, admitted to the European Union in 2004, has headed in the direction of an “illiberal democracy.” The premier, elected in 2010 with an almost two-thirds majority, more or less adheres to democratic rules, but there is also plenty of authoritarianism and intolerance.

Hungary Soros University
Demonstrators hold posters as they protest a new law on education introduced by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Source: Janos Marjai/MTI via AP

In contrast, Mr. Soros likes to promote an open and transparent society. “For Mr. Orbán, who likes the examples provided by the new US president, Donald Trump, and Russian president, Vladimir Putin, the CEU is the antithesis of what Mr. Orbán sees as an illiberal democracy, which is what he is trying to transform Hungary into,” said Mr. Pelinka. “The CEU represents intellectual openness and thoughtfulness, for which Mr. Orbán has no use.”

There are 1,400 students from more than 130 countries enrolled at the CEU. The university is owned by the New York-based Open Society Foundations, created by Mr. Soros, 86. Close to 14,000 students have graduated from the elite university since it was founded, and its graduates provide it with significant influence.

It is unclear what will happen next at the CEU. The university will have to negotiate new terms with the Hungarian government. If the negotiations fail, the school will have to stop accepting new students in 2018 and shut down by 2021.

The only chance of surviving is to exert more political pressure on Mr. Orbán. The CEU president, Mr. Ignatieff, is trying to put more pressure on the Hungarian government, via talks with the U.S. He is both combative and optimistic. Although Mr. Pelinka estimates the chances of success at around “at least 50 percent.”

On this front, the CEU is disappointed with Germany. “Of course, the German auto industry is primarily interested in the benefits of relatively low wage costs – and freedom of science is secondary,” Mr. Pelinka said critically, adding: “Mr. Orbán certainly doesn’t have Angela Merkel as a political ally, but he does have a friends in the CSU,” he noted, referring to the conservative Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of German Chancellor Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union.

But even the European Commission sees no way to take action against Hungary. “Personally I do not believe that administrative moves, or proceedings around contract infringement, or other European Commission actions against a member state will help much,” said Vĕra Jourová, the E.U. Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, about the case.

The possible closing of the CEU is only one aspect of Mr. Orbán’s battle with Mr. Soros. The Hungarian leader is also pushing for a new law that would force foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to register with a court if they receive more than 7.2 million Hungarian forints – around $24,500 – in donations from abroad. In the scheme of things, this is a small amount. These NGOs would then be required to identify themselves as “organizations with foreign support” in all media and public appearances. Mr. Soros’ Open Society Foundation and the human rights organization Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, which he supports and which advocates for refugees, both play an important role in Hungary and would be subject to this new legislation.

“It is quite cynical that a non-transparent government is taking NGOs to task and demanding more transparency. Ironically, many organizations like the Helsinki Committee already have maximal financial transparency. Everyone knows this,” said Goran Buldioski, director of the Open Society Initiative for Europe, an organization that aims to strengthen democracy. “Mr. Orbán is trying to prevent us from doing our work as a non-governmental organization.”

Despite all the offers, the CEU remains determined to stay in Budapest. But it is also clear that this decision is one they may not necessarily get to make; it is most likely to be made by Mr. Orbán himself.


Hans-Peter Siebenhaar is Handelsblatt’s correspondent in Vienna. To contact the author:

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